Skip to main content

TO THE WIRE: The race to pass the 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History, Politics

This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.

The House of Lords Order Paper for the 19th April 2000 noted a chamber debate taking place that afternoon to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of the 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act. Lord Rix, a former actor now President of Mencap began proceedings with an air of theatrical aplomb that was more Master of Ceremonies than Peer of the Realm. After the preliminaries he passed the baton to Lord Morris of Manchester, previously known as Alf Morris MP. The visionary behind this landmark statute being celebrated that day. Much like an ex-professional sportsman reflecting retrospectively on a famous victory from decades past, he spoke vividly about the manic nature of how his bill was passed against all odds. Paying tribute to a supporting cast from both Houses that helped make it happen including names like Jack Ashley, Dame Irene Ward, Baroness Darcy de Knayth & Lord Longford. This blog will look back on a most dramatic of legislative races that once past the post enacted an equality law unprecedented in the Western world. Fifty years ago, it went to the wire.

Read debate in full:


Black and white photograph of Alfred Morris in suit, sitting at a desk, staring at a small ornament bust.
Alfred Morris, 20 April 1972, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/6/2/

Day 1

 The Queen’s speech opening the 1969-70 Parliamentary Session was distinctly representative of the progressive social policies that characterised Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It referred to legislation lowering the voting age & establishing an Open University for all. But again, there was the glaring omission of any proposed statute concerning disability rights. For Alf Morris, MP for Wythenshawe, Manchester this was the final straw. Since entering Parliament five years earlier he frequently spoke for the disabled minority but to no avail. For a man who had pulled up himself up from the backstreets of Ancoats to the gilded halls of Westminster this could go on no more. He drafted a bill titled ‘Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons’ seeking a comprehensive programme to enable people with disabilities to be part of society.

The next step was to participate in the traditional Private Members Bill ballot though standing in his way would be the formidable figure of Richard Crossman, Minister for Social Services.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill deals with many problems, all of them intensely human, but has a single intention. This intention is to increase the welfare, improve the status and enhance the dignity of the chronically sick and of disabled persons.

The Bill was conceived scarcely more than three weeks ago as an essay in helping the disabled. The House will recall that the principal Private Member's Bills in recent Sessions have all been concerned with subjects of major social importance, such as capital punishment, abortion and homosexuality and divorce law reform. Thus, one need hardly apologise for the size and scope and purpose of this Bill.

Alf Morris MP – House of Commons 2nd Reading debate for the– Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Bill - 5th December 1969. Read debate in full:

Day 45 

For Alf Morris to find himself introducing his bill to Parliament twenty shopping days before Christmas was a great achievement. The Private Members Bill ballot had a history as a graveyard for the good intentions of grand legislative ideals. Years later he recalled that, ‘for a back-bench MP, first place in the Private Members’ ballot is the most coveted prize in the lottery of parliamentary life’. In a quirk of fate his brother Charles, also a Member of Parliament was Deputy Chief Whip whose duties involved organising the ballot. The siblings had witnessed from a young age their father suffering indiscriminately from disabilities which made this a very personal crusade. But within the upper echelons of the Labour Government there was a lukewarm reaction to the result. Richard Crossman’s own Social Insurance Bill was also going through Parliament encapsulating his vision of how the benefit system would be allocated in the new decade that would aid the severely disabled. The Minister had Premiership ambitions and this statement of intent was being undermined by Morris and his cohorts. As the year turned the statute book was still a long way off.

Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill- List of Standing Committee members


Wednesday, 4th February 1970


Sir MYER GALPERN, in the Chair

Mr Jack Ashley Mr. John Astor Sir Clive Bossom

Mr Maurice Macmillan

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones Dr. John Dunwoody Mr. Fred Evans

Mr. Neil Marten Mr. Alfred Morris Mr. John Page Dame Irene Ward Mr. David Weitzman

Mr. Reginald Freeson


Day 105

To make the accession to Royal Assent a little high-profile praise doesn’t go amiss. Sunday Times editor, Harold Evans was a fellow Mancunian who used his newspaper to help promote the empathetic innovation of Morris’s proposals, which included a clause for a blue badge scheme to assist disabled travel. Parliament matriarch, Dame Irene Ward was the only female member represented in the Standing Committee debates that took place in February 1970.

Dame Irene Ward, 1965, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/800

She used the platform to draw attention to the poor conditions of the country’s mental homes where many of the chronically sick were being systematically placed. This subject had been a recent bone of contention between herself and Richard Crossman. His Social Insurance Bill was somewhat floundering at Committee stage while the Morris bill passed through with flying colours. Momentum was now key as proceedings moved to the House of Lords where time would now be of the essence.

I should like to ask the indulgence of the House for my maiden speech and say what an honour it is for me to speak on this particular subject. I wish to give my fullest support to this humane and extensive Bill, which aims to do much to improve the care of the chronically sick and disabled and to broaden the scope of their lives. My Lords, this country, I believe, does more than any other towards caring for and rehabilitating its disabled. It is surely illogical not to spend time, skill and money in equipping them to re-enter the community

Baroness Darcy De Knayth)– House of Lords 2nd Reading debate for the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Bill – 9th April 1970. Read debate in full:


Day 169

The bill now found itself laid before the House of Lords which in some instances could cause consternation for its sponsors over in the Commons. But in this case, it was in safe hands as leading from the front was Lord Longford. The Hereditary Peer was a household name due to television appearances where his sincere humanist opinions and Edwardian appearance pigeonholed him as an eccentric. In a past role as Leader of the House he’d clashed with Prime Minister, Harold Wilson leading to his resignation. Longford’s wholehearted belief in this bill was reciprocated by a broad consensus across the Upper House none more so than Baroness Darcy De Knayth. In 1964 only months after being awarded a peerage she was involved in a car accident that left her paralysed. This life-changing experience gave the Baroness an emotive understanding of the futility of a disabled person’s existence. In the Second Reading debate she made her maiden speech reflecting these sentiments as the discourse probed new themes of discussion referencing dyslexia, haemophilia and wheelchair access. For the Lords this was not just a scrutiny exercise but an opportunity to put their stamp on the final Act.

Horace King- Speaker

(in the Clerk's place at the Table): I have to acquaint the House that the House has been to the House of Peers where a Commission under the Great Seal was read, authorising the Royal Assent to the following Acts:

  1. Equal Pay Act 1970
  2. Local Authority Social Services Act 1970
  3. Trees Act 1970
  4. Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970

Royal Assent – List of 1970 Acts of Parliament – House of Commons, 29th May 1970


Day 219

On Monday 18th May 1970 Harold Wilson visited Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen ‘s permission to call a snap election the following month. At this juncture Alf Morris’s bill was sailing through the Lords Committee on a wave of altruism now it faced potential oblivion as procedural jaws began to close for dissolution. It was the beginning of a ‘wash-up’ period where bills in this state of limbo could either sink or swim. Morris had to put on his negotiating hat as a statute of such magnitude would necessitate vast public spending and a money resolution agreement was imperative to get over the legislative finishing line. Backstairs dealing was required and over the course of that week he secured the special procedures to push through the Lords Report stage to the Shangri-La of the statute book at the last knockings of the Parliamentary session. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill was now law becoming a foundation stone for all disability legislation that followed.


Year Zero

At the beginning of 1980, Alf Morris requested that the Minister for Social Services, Patrick Jenkin publish the total spending of his department on benefits and services for the Chronically Sick and Disabled from the seventies. Published in Hansard it detailed that in 1970, the figure stood at £10.5 million and by 1979 it had risen to £48.3 million. A testimony to his extraordinary efforts.

Sign up to UK Parliament's Visit Newsletter for the latest updates on visiting and Big Ben,

Sharing and comments

Share this page